What's the official food of America?
Trick question: Technically, America doesn't have a national dish—as decreed by the US government, anyway. But some good guesses would be cheeseburgers, hot dogs, or apple pie (despite all of their culinary origins in other parts of the world.) We're a relatively new country, in the grand scheme of things, so maybe we don't have a millennia-old food tradition to hang our hat on. But it's no secret that we love all things fatty, carby, and meaty.
And beyond that, we love convenience. The drive-thru line is the real church of the United States. We eat more processed food than people in any other nation in the world. In 2010, figures showed that we were eating 31 percent more packaged products than fresh food, according to the New York Times. In fact, roughly 70 percent of the food consumed by the average American is processed, including packaged snacks, frozen entrees, baked goods, and fast food.
But take a look at our government subsidies, and you may start to understand why the American people keep making these eating choices, if you want to call them that.
As you may already know, the US government doles out billions upon billions of dollars every year to farmers and producers in order to keep supplies up and prices low for consumers, with the lion's share of the dough going to crops such as corn, wheat, soy, rice, dairy, peanuts, and sugar, as well as the meat industry (which uses a huge share of the feed crops, anyhow). And though many experts have previously pointed out that these are primarily foods that we're told to eat less of, not more, a recent study illuminates just how bad these foods are for us… and how messed up it is that the government pushes them onto our plates.
The study—published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a branch of the Journal of the American Medical Association—aimed to "investigate whether higher consumption of foods derived from subsidized food commodities is associated with adverse cardiometabolic risk among US adults." In other words, researchers hoped to uncover just how much eating all of this pink slime and corn syrup and processed cheese is affecting our bodies in a measurable way.
And the results were a little harrowing. Surprising or not, the foods that the government makes easy on our wallets are hard on our waistlines.
The research team examined self-reported data from 10,000 Americans about what they ate every day, spanning from 2001 to 2006, and then calculated how much of their diets was comprised of these government-subsidized foods, from beef and corn to rice and wheat, including in the form of additives and as ingredients in packaged items and fast food. They found, first and foremost, that more than half of the calories consumed by the average American (56 percent, to be exact) came from these subsidized foods, representing a diet rich in carbs, dairy, and meat, and deficient in fresh produce of other kinds. This was especially true in populations that were younger, less affluent, and less educated.
Worse still, the study authors also found that compared to people who ate the least amount of these subsidized foods, those who ate the most were 37 percent more likely to be obese and 41 percent more likely to have excess belly fat, and were also far more likely to have high cholesterol or elevated inflammatory markers.
Researchers concluded: "Among US adults, higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks. Better alignment of agricultural and nutritional policies may potentially improve population health."
One pretty obvious solution: for the government to relieve some of the subsidies on these foods and redirect them toward the most nutritious fruits and vegetables, and other categories with proven health benefits.
"I'm a major advocate for linking agricultural policy to health policy," says Marion Nestle—Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and author of books including Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health—to MUNCHIES, regarding the results of the study. "Without that, it's all too easy for Big Ag to pressure Congress to give it as much corporate welfare as possible. If we had a rational agriculture-and-health policy, we would be supporting the growers of fruits and vegetables, small farmers, organic and sustainable farmers, and doing everything else we could to reduce the cost and improve the quality of the real—as opposed to processed—foods we eat."
But the ties between the government and the meat and dairy industries, for example, are tough to tamper with. The meat lobby has pushed back hard against initiatives such as Meatless Monday, including one instance when the USDA was forced to apologize for suggesting its adoption in an interoffice newsletter.
Of course, there are many other factors at play besides just government subsidies, from junk food advertising to portion size (let's not forget that 92 percent of American restaurants serve oversized portions) to food deserts to lack of education about nutrition. However, with America's health statistics and obesity rates only worsening, the feds may be forced to take a good, hard look at where the money's flowing, and find a way to redirect it to food that isn't slowly killing us.